Wheels on the bus coming off
P.A.C.T. in danger after cuts
Marcus Clem | editor in chief
An ever-tightening fiscal climate is set to curtail, and perhaps eliminate, Pittsburg’s free bus service that runs daily around town.
The Southeast Kansas Community Action Program (SEK-CAP), based in Girard, relies on funding from the federal and state governments to pay for the Pittsburg Area Community Transportation (PACT) bus service.
Those monies have not escaped the culture of fiscal austerity that is gradually taking effect nationwide, and the community may soon lose part or all of its daily public transportation.
Other SEK-CAP services, such as the maintenance of the CHOICES homeless shelter on 2nd and Pine, may also be affected.
Becky Gray, SEK-CAP director of research, planning and grants development, says that the shelter assists about 300 people every year.
“Right now, it depends on the final funding levels, but it might just shut,” Becky Gray said.
Shallow government coffers
The financial danger facing SEK-CAP is coming from multiple directions.
On the federal end, sequestration, a schedule of automatic budget cuts that will gradually affect the federal government over the next decade, is tightening money all around.
The Community Services Block Grant (CSBG), on which SEK-CAP depends, is also slated for an independent 50 percent cut.
Steve Lohr, SEK-CAP executive director, says it could get worse.
“We could end up dramatically changing how the bus operates,” he said.
On the state level, there is an additional problem.
The Kansas Housing Resources Corporation (KHRC), an arm of the state government responsible for portioning the state’s CSBG money, is considering a plan that would reallocate 10 percent of SEK-CAP’s portion to other parts of the state.
All together, SEK-CAP may be faced with a shortfall of about $543,724, roughly 73 percent of the organization’s funding, Lohr says.
If these cuts become final, Lohr says, severe reductions in the services SEK-CAP provides will become unavoidable.
The KHRC held a hearing on funding through the CSBG on Thursday, Aug. 15, to consider Lohr’s argument to maintain funding, but he says he is pessimistic about a solution coming at the state level.
“We will have to rely upon Health and Human Services to intervene,” Lohr said of his planned appeal to the federal government in the coming months, “and that may be a long shot. Otherwise, we’ll have to entertain other options … As regards PACT, the last thing we want to do is cut that service.”
Less money, less service
For the PACT bus service, several adjustments are available. One is to cut hours of operation for the two bus routes PACT operates. Another is to stop operating one of the routes entirely.
Gray says that SEK-CAP is also considering how to adjust the demand-response transportation program, which allows residents to call the bus 24 hours in advance.
Other transportation programs are currently not threatened by service reductions. This is primarily because of alternative funding sources and lower demand, Gray says.
These services include Safe Ride, which offers on-demand rides to Pittsburg State students who need a ride home after hours, and the Gus Bus, which provides the same service along a fixed route.
The PACT Plus service, which supplements Safe Ride, will also not be affected.
Still, Lohr says that he is frustrated.
“They’re trying to spread a very finite resource over the entire state,” he said. “It doesn’t work. They know it doesn’t work.”
He added that he believes the state government’s approach to implementing the changes has also been harmful.
“On the state level, the forces arrayed against us are considerable,” he said.
Gray says she shares Lohr’s beliefs.
“There’s a trend, currently, to eliminate resources from entities that are helping people,” she said. “Municipalities are taking the brunt of this. By diminishing SEK-CAP, they’re dismantling a real infrastructure that was built to help people. Now we will have jobs lost, empty buildings, and permanently parked buses.”
When contacted, Al Dorsey, KHRC director of housing with supportive services, said he would respond after consulting with his office’s public relations department.
As of press time, no response was received.
Internationals heavily reliant
Getting around an unfamiliar area can be difficult, especially for someone who may have trouble getting directions because of language or cultural barriers.
Having flown thousands of miles from home in many cases, Pitt State’s international students typically don’t have access to a car.
It’s not practical for students who can afford it to get one, because most of them plan to be here for only a semester or two, says Lokesh Dhiman.
“The people who say that we don’t need the bus are wrong,” said Dhiman, junior in automotive service technology who is from India. “It really helps.”
While Pitt State International Programs and Services offers occasional trips to places like Wal-Mart or Meadowbrook Mall, it can’t meet most students’ needs.
The PACT bus helps make up transportation needs the university cannot ordinarily offer, Dhiman added.
“We have more than 100 new students coming in every semester … They all depend on this to get around campus and town, basically.”
Cathy Lee Arcuino, director of international programs and services, says she has the same concerns.
“I’m very worried for the international students,” she said. “That is the main means of transportation for our students around town.”
Steve Scott, university president, says that he’s aware of the bus service’s importance to internationals and other students.
“From the university’s standpoint, we’re concerned about the cuts,” he said. “In particular, our international students have taken advantage of the bus. The loss of it would hurt our students.”
Important city artery
Of course, public transportation isn’t something only internationals rely on.
Tara Dene Creek says that before she received her bachelor’s degree in May, she lived on the opposite side of town from her job at Home Depot.
To save on car expenses, she depended on the PACT bus.
“For some people who live on the south side and are working in the north side, walking is not an option,” said Creek, alumna in psychology.
David Adams, assistant director of campus activities, says he sympathizes.
“The fact that they’re trying to reduce funding now would be going in a negative direction in terms of supporting our students,” he said.
Downtown businesses also could see a harmful drop in their customer base if transportation into the city is cut, says Jeff Wilbert, City of Pittsburg downtown district coordinator.
“That would be tough on the city,” he said. “There’s no question that they are vital to the community.”
Steve Erwin, associate vice president of campus life and auxiliary services, whose office manages the university’s funding for SEK-CAP, says that the environmental benefits of public transportation are also important.
“Having this opportunity is a solid, sustainable kind of green initiative,” he said. “Obviously, public transportation is better than everybody driving their own cars in that sense.”
Alternative funding possible
Bus riders may have a cause for optimism in the longer term.
Currently, the university supports SEK-CAP financially. Every year, it funds the PACT bus program for $15,000, and the Safe Ride programs for $6,000, Erwin says.
Lohr says that as a result, SEK-CAP will still be able to service the university’s immediate area.
However, additional funding from the university and/or the city may be able to make a difference, or at least cushion the cuts.
The city government provided a grant in 2007 to SEK-CAP, but has not contributed since, Lohr says.
“We have spoken to the city every year since service began in 2007,” he said. “Beyond the startup grant of $15,000 we received that year, we have not received any money.”
The Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce would have to take time to officially decide how to address the situation, says Devin Gorman, Chamber vice president of operations.
However, he says that in his opinion, extra funding from the city to close the gap would be prudent to consider.
“We have a lot of people stop by our offices that need public transportation to get around town,” Gorman said. “That will be hurtful for our community if public transportation went away.”
Mayor Michael Gray could not be reached for comment.
Scott says that it’s a question worth considering.
“We have a very strong and very beneficial relationship with SEK-CAP,” he said. “With that said, I’m not sure what the next step would be. I think we should get some people together and talk about our options.”